Former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, who’s now a Washington lobbyist, was in Dallas the other day to meet with clients and partners at the local office of Patton Boggs LLP. Patton in July snapped up the Breaux-Lott Consulting Group, which Lott, a former Republican senator from Mississippi, started with former Sen. John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, in 2008.
Lott, who epitomizes the Washington insider, recently found himself in hot water with Tea Party types over a story that appeared in the Washington Post. In his comments for that article–which Lott (pictured) contends were supposed to be off the record–he talked about the need to “co-opt” Tea Party members once they got to Washington. He also spoke unkindly about Sen. Jim DeMint, the hard-right Tea Part icon. In the following Q&A, he basically says his point was misunderstood.
Do you regret your comments in the Post about co-opting the Tea Party people in Congress?
I was a tea partier before it was cool. I was in Congress 35 years, and I’ll put my [conservative] voting record up against anybody that’s there. As majority leader, you have to find a way to get things done. You have to find a way to talk to [a Democrat like] John Breaux. John was my go-to Democrat when I was Senate majority leader. That’s how we got the Bush tax cut in 2001; John was a key component of that. We negotiated it down–from $1.2 trillion to $900 billion, say; those aren’t the exact figures–and where I’m from, that’s still a pretty good deal. That’s the component that has been missing in recent years.
I like the fact that the Tea Party people are driven by economic considerations; it’s not a social thing. And don’t get me wrong–I’m a gun-totin’, bible-thumpin’, pro-life Republican, always have been. But my impression is that the tea partiers are worried about spending being out of control, worried about their children and grandchildren. So I think the Tea Party group provided a lot of enthusiasm and energy, particularly in the House races. I’ve gone over the resumes of every one of the new Republicans, and a lot of them are pretty impressive–like Marco Rubio in Florida.
But my point was, if they want to change things in Washington, they have to find a way to get things done. “No” won’t get it. To control spending, you have to get an affirmative vote to pass a budget that controls spending. Work with the team and the system. Does the “system” need to be changed? Is that a dirty word? OK, if you want to put it that way, it is. But you have to find a way to actually get it done. “Co-opt” is not a good word. But what it really means is: Bring ’em in, listen to ’em, get ’em involved. That’s what you do in life and in the legislative process.
What about your remarks regarding Jim DeMint?
I have problems with the attitude that says, “We’re gonna stop things; we’re gonna say no.” Maybe people are happier when Congress is not doing a whole lot! But I repeat: If you’re gonna do anything about energy policy, say, you have to decide what it’s gonna be; if you’re gonna do anything about infrastructure and trying to create jobs, how do you do that? People say, “Well, that’s just spending.” Well, what about that bridge out there? Sometimes it’s a simple thing like safety. So, we’ll see. When you get to be in leadership, whether it’s DeMint or anybody else, then you have the responsibility of getting something done.
Do you think banning earmarks is a good idea?
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had a quote recently from Winston Churchill I thought was really very good. He said, “It took courage to stand up and speak. It took even more courage to sit down and listen.” When you’ve got a new team like this, there’s some things that … a lot of it is imagery. Like when [incoming House Speaker] John Boehner said he’s not gonna have the Air Force fly him all over the country; he’s gonna take commercial planes. People will like that. And the earmark thing has become a symbol. The Senate Republican Conference vote was not binding, not enforceable, but it was saying, “OK, we’re gonna try to get this thing under control.”
I personally think they should not give up the ability to do earmarking. You might say, “Well, he’s a Mississippi porkster.” No. I do think it’s a constitutional right. I remember specifically I helped get bonds for a little ol’ town in Mississippi called Tchula, Miss. Ninety-eight percent minority, desperate situation, people having to carry drinking water in buckets from the central part of downtown, no community center, no police station. They had an African-American woman, well-educated, who was trying to help ‘em. I could not get HUD to him ‘em. They said, “Well, they don’t qualify. Haven’t got the criteria, can’t pay it back.” Well, no! So Sen. Thad Cochran and I got earmarks to help that little ol’ town.
But, here’s what has happened. When I was first in Congress, to get an earmark it had to meet certain criteria–be authorized, have a feasibility study if it’s a Corps project. You couldn’t just stick it in conference in the dead of night where nobody at the committee level had reviewed it. So [over time] it got to be a lot more money, though it’s still a relatively small amount. It’s clearly gotten out of control. So Congress is saying, “We’re gonna take a timeout here, we’re gonna look at the impact, see if it can happen, how it happens.” I think that’s the responsible thing to do.
So, do you–or don’t you–like the idea of banning earmarks?
I wouldn’t give it up myself, because there were many occasions when some nameless, faceless bureaucrat in Transportation or Interior would not do anything about a major problem in my poor little ol’ state. So on occasion I got earmarks in those appropriation bills. But I acknowledge that it’s gotten out of hand and the American people have said, “Look, members of Congress, old and new, get your spending under control, and you might want to begin with yourselves.” But I’d be very reluctant to give that up, as a member of the Senate.
What exactly are you doing at Patton Boggs?
Sen. Breaux and I were on the same committees, such as finance, so we’re interested in tax policy, health care issues; we were both on commerce, so we’re interested in maritime issues, transportation issues, energy issues. We represent energy companies like Entergy, for example. We work with the railroads, we work with Delta. We do defense contracts. In fact tonight I’m speaking to the Raytheon officials here in Dallas; the CEO from Boston will be here. They’re nervous about what is [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates really up to, what are all these budget restraints, are they gonna affect the Pentagon budget and the sophisticated stuff that Raytheon does for the military in Afghanistan and Iraq. So they’ve got a lot of questions.
So, in your new position at Patton Boggs you’re representing all kinds of business interests in Washington; essentially, you’re selling your insider expertise so these special interests can more easily manipulate the system. No disrespect intended, but you seem to be the epitome of the “revolving door” lobby that some blame for much of the mess the country’s in. Do you think that’s a fair criticism?
I think there’s some credibility to that. It depends on the times, on how many do it. Let’s take an example: Sen. Dan Coats from Indiana. He was chief of staff to Dan Quayle, then he was his successor in the House, appointed as his successor in the Senate, then elected in his own right to the Senate, then he said, “I always talked about term limits,” so he didn’t run again. Then Bush appointed him ambassador to Germany, he did lobbying for a law firm, he got so worried about his country, he ran for re-election this year. He’s 65 years old and got re-elected to the Senate. How’s that for a revolving door? He’s one of the finest human beings I’ve ever know. He is one of two guys I called my “Twin Torpedos”–they always had my back in the Senate. (The other was Connie Mack.) They told me the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I do think that some people stay too long. To bring in new blood and have turnover, I think that’s good. So Sen. Breaux and I got out and formed our partnership. Yeah, we do consulting, we’ve got a lot of background that we think is helpful. So, I think there’s some legitimacy to their complaint. But like with everything else there’s a strong other side, too.